Our return trip to Beijing was not too bad. The China Southern plane was bigger and less cramped. Not as stuffy. The blankets did not smell bad, but was not packed in a plastic bag like SIA, and there were not many available the attendant had to ask people to share!
Guess what was shown on the TV screen? A promotional video on Malaysia!
Fourth sister C had arrived in Beijing a few hours earlier. She met me at the airport and we proceeded to the Hotel Qomolongma. She had initially booked rooms at Bamboo Garden but at the last minute was informed that there was no room available for her. Bamboo Garden and Qomolangma are two of only three hotels located near the old hutong city areas; C is so not a chain hotel person.
For a second choice hotel, Qomolangma impressed us a great deal. Its front lobby is modest and the receptionist staff helpful and accommodating. The rates were incredibly reasonable at RMB 518 for a standard room. Nothing fancy like in-house spa or marble bathtubs, just comfortable amenities. When we were not quite happy with our room which had a strong smell of cigarettes they happily put us into a second level room with a view of the front street. What else did I like about it? Free internet access. Duvet. Firm mattress. And gorgeous views all around. In fact the grounds still hold a temple and encompass a few lovely gardens, simply wonderful to explore in the morning.
The petals drop like snow. The gardener sweeps the petals into tidy piles.
All day he did this. Camera-shy yet friendly. In the morning when he saw us again he invited us to try the tiny sweet apples that have dropped onto the ground.
View of the main street from our room. Tree-lined avenue, old walls, cyclists passing unhurriedly by. The ambience was unique, C and I have never quite encountered feeling so comfortable in all our travels. This place is tranquil and historic yet at ease in the 21st century.
More views of the grounds. Moon gates. Beautiful temple details, better preserved than the ones we saw at the Palace.
After unloading our bags we explored the hutongs. Not as slum-like as I thought. People carry on as they've been doing for hundreds of years. Sounds of crickets chirping and children playing in the back lanes. The weather was so hot the men mostly went about topless.
Many of the houses are still in good condition, architecturally and historically they are very important. The walls are built thickly and the insides of the homes cool in summer, warm in winter. We took a slow trishaw ride around the lake areas (Houhai, Beihai..), touristy yes, but easier on the feet especially with the blistering sun overhead.
Then it was back to the hotel for a quick rest and shower. Since I only had one night in Beijing, I suggested we do the obvious thing and eat Peking Duck. Quanjude is the most well-known so we tried that. Their version is quite revelatory. For many years now I have been used to the more elegant Cantonese version which takes only the crispy skin and enfold it in either thin crepes or omelet. Here at Quanjude, the duck is sliced with skin, fat and meat together. The duck had a very becoming sweetness rather than gaminess, the skin was crispy on one side and a bit more 'crackling' like on the other side. The wheat crepes are thicker and have a delighfully chewy bite. The brown sauce is more assertive, more rounded and not too salty. The waitress helped me to wrap a piece, taking two or three pieces of duck, adding a bunch of scallions,dipping the meat into the brown sauce and urged me to eat, eat before it got cold.
I took a bite, and was struck by how different, and how absolutely delicious it was. Not just the duck, or the skin, or the sauce, it was the coming together of all the ingredients that made such a perfect gustatory experience.
We also ordered their duck liver slices in brine. It was like eating pate, very rich and smooth. Especially delicious eaten together with the roast duck.
The next day, I had an afternoon flight to catch. We woke up early to go to Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. Bumped right into millions of other tourists. The sun was in full glare.
Tiananmen Square was surprisingly boring, surrounded by imposing and important looking building. The Palace inside the Forbidden City is also just an empty shell, it looks much better on telly. What I really liked is the irony- the once forbidden and access-restricted place is now over-run with hordes of people every day.
Our taxi dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel. We came across a 'small eats' shop and decided to give it a try. The locals were slurping this intriguing brown gruel so we ordered ourselves some. Hmm, quite an acquired taste, it was quite bland and stodgy and we could barely swallow a spoonful between us. The bean noodles were more familiar.
Walking along, saw a few cake shops. Displaying extravagantly decorated cakes, much like those I saw in Urumqi. One shop had windows to let customers view the decorating being done, and customers can speak to the icing lady through holes in the window. Here is one at work, she was piping pink icing onto a little cone to make a flower.
Used a pair of scissors to place flower on cake.
Tada, final result. The peaches symbolise longevity, so does the pine tree and the Chinese word (I think). A design intended to celebrate the birthday of a senior person. Took her about 30 minutes to finish this.
Guess what, the customer was not happy. He wanted the flowers to be arranged differently and he was quite upset with the final result. Her mask did not quite contain her exasperation. But the customer's will prevailed, and she agreed to redo the design.
Now I understand. It isn't about the cake, it is all about the design. Wonder if people actually eat all that icing?
The 24 hour snack shop next to the hotel serves delicious noodles. There is nothing quite like eating freshly pulled noodles in China, the texture so brilliantly pliant, the bite so chewy, the taste nutty and slightly sweet, the strands managing not to clump together. Good in a clear beef broth, heaps better in a cool, mildly spicy sesame sauce with bits of luncheon meat and julienned cucumbers.
Hunger satiated, I prepared to leave for the airport. I was pleased that I managed to cram so much in less than 24 hours. Still, there was so much more that I wanted to explore, well, maybe next time....